Belmont Park Racing: Combat Pay

Belmont Park Racing: Combat Pay
Photo: AP/NYRA/Adam Coglianese
Jockey Chris McCarron, unseated at start of CCA Oaks.
Try to imagine a runner attempting to finish the New York Marathon having run the entire 26 miles wearing combat boots. That's pretty much what the field for the $350,000 Coaching Club American Oaks (gr. I) on July 21 looked like as they staggered home in the 1 1/2-mile event.

Not to take anything away from the winner, Tweedside, who ran a terrific race to win by 7 3/4 lengths, but you just didn't know who to feel more sorry for watching this sad sight, that was ugly right from the start.

There was Chris McCarron, who was thrown from the 4-5 favorite Starrer four jumps out of the gate, and had to be hurriedly removed on a stretcher. There was Starrer herself, who slipped inside the field, then ran her heart out the entire race for nothing, while tearing a flap of skin from her left front hoof. There was Starrer's trainer David Hofmans, who sent his filly 3,000 miles to run in the CCA Oaks, even though he looked to have had the Hollywood Oaks (gr. I) at his mercy. All he and owner George Krikorian could do was endure an agonizing two and a half minutes, just hoping the filly came back unscathed. Of course, there were all the bettors who tore up their tickets in disgust. And finally, there were the beaten horses, who were trying merely to get their weary legs to carry them across the finish line.

The scene looked more like the finish of the Grand National Steeplechase, with exhausted, rubber-legged horses spread out the entire length of the stretch. For example, third-place finisher Unbridled Lassie was beaten 29 1/4 lengths by the winner and finished close to 50 lengths behind the riderless Starrer, who crossed the wire first in another time zone than the others.

But there was one bright spot, and her name was Tweedside, who despite a trotting-horse final three-quarters in 1:19.56 still managed to run the 1 1/2 miles faster than her sire, Thunder Gulch, when he won the 1995 Belmont Stakes (gr. I). Thunder Gulch was the biggest hero on this day, accomplishing the rare feat of a Belmont winner siring a Belmont winner and CCA Oaks winner in the same year.

Tweedside's trainer Todd Pletcher was well aware that lady luck was smiling down on him and his filly.

"Right place at the right time" was all he said as he watched owner Eugene Melnyk lead his filly and jockey John Velazquez down victory lane. Meanwhile, some disgruntled fans expressed their views on this debacle. New Yorkers are not known for accepting the defeat of 4-5 shots gracefully, especially when they're out of the race after 15 yards.

"You got a gift, John," someone yelled to Velazquez. "Go home and pray tonight." Another person reminded Pletcher, "You got a break, don't forget that. God was looking over your shoulder."

Pletcher couldn't argue with the guy.

"Yeah, he was," he answered.

Tweedside, a $100,000 yearling purchase at the 1999 Keeneland September sale, wouldn't even have been in the Oaks had her previous start, the Sands Point Stakes, not been taken off the grass. A failure on the dirt early in her career, she blossomed on the turf, winning two of her four starts, with two seconds. But in the sloppy Sands Point, run at 11Z8 miles, she won by six lengths in a four-horse field.

"We were fortunate when the Sands Point came off the grass, otherwise we probably would have looked for another turf race," Pletcher said. "When she won the way she did, I started thinking about the Oaks. We just felt with her pedigree, she's bred to stay. And she has that classic, oil painting look of a distance horse. Sometimes, you get lucky and things happen the right way."

While Tweedside was heading to the winner's circle, Hofmans was on the track inspecting Starrer's legs. He immediately noticed she had grabbed herself on her left foreleg, but couldn't tell the extent of the injury. The horror show began when Starrer stumbled shortly after the start. Running out in the middle of the track, behind the field, she cut sharply across the entire track and actually passed everyone while squeezing through a very narrow opening along the rail that most jockeys wouldn't even go through. What prompted her to do that we'll never know, but it was a move that would have made Eddie Arcaro proud.

Down the backstretch, Starrer was leading the pack, but officially it was Tap Dance who held a three-length lead in a brisk :47.20 for the half and 1:11.14 for the three-quarters, with the 10-1 Tweedside sitting comfortably in second. That means Starrer was going in :46 and change and 1:10. Rider or no rider, that's flying in a 11Z2-mile race. By the time they reached the far turn, the race began falling apart. Tap Dance started to bear out, leaving a gaping hole for Tweedside to slip through. Turning for home, Starrer was some 10 lengths ahead of the pack, while Tweedside was about to bust the race wide open. One by one, horses kept dropping out of it. Down the stretch, the remaining fillies were strung out as far as the eye could see.

Tweedside, under left-handed whipping, drew off to win comfortably over Exogenous, with Unbridled Lassie another 21 1/2 lengths back in third. The last-place finisher, Classy Place, who was eased, literally walked across the finish line. Because of the fast early fractions, the final time was a somewhat respectable 2:30.70.

Watching the replay in the jocks' room, McCarron, who suffered only a "little sore spot on his butt" from being kicked by Starrer, couldn't understand why he failed to stay on. He finally figured it out, and went back to the barn to talk to Hofmans and Krikorian, and to see how the filly was.

Hofmans was relieved to see only the flap of skin hanging and a little blood, but nothing serious.

"This is not bad at all," he said.

A still-dazed, but relieved, Krikorian stood nearby and watched. "As long as she's okay and the rider is okay, that's all that's important," he said. "The sooner we forget about this race the better we'll be. But I don't think you ever forget about something like this."

A few minutes later, McCarron showed up and discussed his theory. "She didn't stumble that badly," he said. "Touch Gold (in the 1997 Preakness, gr. I) went right to his nose and buried his nose in the dirt, and I was able to stay on him. I asked myself, why couldn't I stay on her? I think I know the answer. I've never had a horse stumble that far out of the gate. She stumbled on the fourth stride. On the first stride, you're back and you're braced. For the next two strides your weight is still back. On the fourth stride you're now pulling yourself forward. And when she stumbled, I felt like a rocket; like I was just catapulted. I was gone."

So, all that was left was the trip back home to California. McCarron thought about sitting on a plane for so many hours and rubbed his sore rear end. "It's going to be a long flight," he said.

(Chart, Equibase)

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